L. Frank Baum wrote multiple novels set in the world of Oz. But instead of adapting one of those, Disney has made this prequel to the most famous of them, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Though it isn’t a musical, it could be seen as a partner to MGM’s 1939 classic adaptation of that work, The Wizard of Oz. The problem is, it lacks the heart, soul and power of that movie. This is a weak, lazily scripted picture that is all CGI and colour and no substance.
The opening of the picture contains promise. A womanising magician (James Franco) pulls the wool over the eyes of an audience at a fairground with his tricks and illusions. This segment is shot in the traditional Academy ratio and in black and white. When his hot air balloon takes him to Oz the screen opens up to a longer, 2.39:1 ratio. The change is effective and the flood of colour that greets the audience is the closest the film gets to recreating the magic of MGM’s 74 year-old film.
It’s downhill from there. Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams are introduced as a trio of witches. It has been prophesised that a wizard is going to save the land of Oz, and our personable hero is keen to persuade them he is just that. Only he and his flying-monkey friend know he is an imposter.
Bad things go down, flying creatures fly, Munchkins dance (briefly) and it all feels dead. The movie is lumbered with a deathly dull screenplay from David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner. It is a masterclass in how to construct a messy plot while send an audience to sleep.
The oddest thing about the film is that it is directed by Sam Raimi. His Spider-Man trilogy was entertaining (apart from the dire last instalment) and contained a level of horror that evoked his previous, rougher work (such as the Evil Dead series). This picture feels very un-Raimi. There are a couple of rather forced and tiresome nods to his past efforts (such as a rather pathetic appearance from Bruce Campbell), but generally speaking this could have been directed by any other bland, voice-less Hollywood director.
James Franco is miscast, as is Mila Kunis. Both are good actors (though Mila is steadily building up a large CV of bad pictures). Weisz and Williams attempt to do something interesting with their characters, but are hindered by the two-dimensional writing. There is also an element of sexism in the way women are presented in the film; something that has ignited debate on various online forums and blogs.
The musical numbers in The Wizard of Oz beautifully advanced characters and allowed the audience to emotionally connect with the onscreen leads. By removing the musical element (which is not necessarily a bad decision in itself), such character development is also sacrificed. The script doesn’t rise up to fill the gap left, and the actors struggle because of it.
Part of me feels bad for being so negative about a film that must have taken a lot of care and dedication, but it just doesn’t hold up as an interesting piece of work. I had high hopes for this return journey to the land Baum so wonderfully created over a hundred years ago, but all I ended up feeling was bored and disappointed.
Oz: The Great and the Powerful (2013), directed by Sam Raimi, is distributed in the UK by Walt Disney Studios, Certificate PG.